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In Sickness and In Health: The Breast Cancer Husband

Author Marc Silver explains the do's and don'ts for husbands of breast cancer patients.

By Beth Brophy

When writer Marc Silver’s wife Marsha was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, he realized he needed help getting his wife through her health crisis. Unfortunately, there were no books aimed at guiding husbands of breast cancer patients. So he wrote Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond. The book covers a range of topics — from what to do in the early, frantic days of diagnosis to defusing family tension to explaining various treatment options. Silver also includes a chapter on an often taboo subject: everything you want to know about sex and breast cancer.

Silver found that most men are unaccustomed to being the family caretaker, and their instincts are often dead wrong. He spoke to Beth Brophy about what he has learned about being a good breast cancer husband:

You write in your book that you didn’t get off to a good start as the husband of a breast cancer patient. What did you do wrong?

Just about everything for the first three or four days. When Marsha, deeply distraught, called me after her mammogram to say that the doctor thought it looked like she had cancer, my reaction was, “Eww, that doesn’t sound good.” Then, instead of rushing home to be with her, I stayed in my office all day, in denial. As bad as I was, I’ve heard worse. One guy told me his response to his wife was, “You’re kidding.” And another guy told me that on the way home from hearing the diagnosis, he asked his wife if she wanted to go car shopping.

Why are men, in general, bad at being caretakers?

Lack of experience. Even in 2005, most of the family caretaking tasks fall to women. Guys have the urge to fight and to fix. Still, there are lots of things you can do for your wife that are tremendously helpful, even if you can’t fix her cancer. For example, you can go with her to her doctor’s appointments and be another set of ears for her. You can hold her hand in the waiting room. Don’t try to be a cheerleader. If my wife was cheerful all the time it would be easier for me. But she gets depressed and mad sometimes, and I’ve had to learn to let her be. Also, when treatment ends, guys want to close the box. But it’s not over for your wife. Symptoms and side effects and fears linger on for a lifetime.

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